Whether you work for a healthcare-focused company, healthcare communications agency or a medical communications agency, the process for engaging a top-notch senior freelance medical writer is pretty much the same. Depending on what you’re currently looking for, you want to make sure to get the best fit in terms of knowledge/experience in the relevant therapy areas and functional expertise. And, needless to say, a freelance medical writer should also be a great communicator, dependable and passionate about the work.
In this guide, we’ll discuss:
- What to look for in a freelance medical writer
- Do PhDs matter?
- Medical writer knowledge
- Medical writing expertise
- Medical writing experience
- Qualities of the best medical writers
- Availability for freelance medical writing projects
- How much should a freelance medical writer cost?
What to look for in a freelance medical writer
Do PhDs matter?
While many freelance medical writers have PhDs (as well as MDs or PharmDs), it shouldn’t be a requirement for all writers. Think of a PhD like a screening mechanism – if someone is willing to spend up to eight years of their life pursing a degree in a very specific field of medicine full time, they’re probably passionate, dedicated, hard-working, organised, have an innate love of health, words and writing (or managed to cultivate one!) and knows how to properly reference their work.
However, the above description also happens to describe me and many of the people I’ve had experience working with in healthcare communications agencies or client-side, and most of us (including me!) do not have a higher degree (just a quirky love of health-related information and content). Since we have a foundational understanding of biostats and are critical thinkers, we have the right skills to digest raw data, clearly communicate why specific results from clinical trials and meta-analyses should matter to physicians and patients, and have invested the time to learn how to endnote our work. So, don’t be too quick to cast aside freelance senior medical writer candidates who have extensive experience and a proven track record, just because they don’t have a PhD.
With that said, PR-it generally offers clients high quality senior medical writer talent with advanced degrees. Check out our writer profiles to see if they may match with what you’re currently looking for: Juliane PhD, Alberto PhD and Mona PharmD.
Medical writer knowledge
What you’ll often find is that a freelance medical writer will either have a really broad or a really specific educational background in a health and/or medical field. S/he may have a bachelor’s or master’s degree in a broad topic such as biology or public health or a PhD in a really specific topic like the GLP-1 pathway in people with obesity.
While it’s of course ideal to find a freelance senior medical writer, who has studied/worked in the exact field of health or medicine a writing job is focused on, most of the time it will be challenging to find a talented writer who will be a perfect fit in this regard.
The good news is, that for most medical writing or medical communications jobs, you don’t need writing experts to have an incredibly deep knowledge in a specific disease, therapeutic area or company. Mostly, this is because freelance medical writers are an intellectually curious bunch and their jobs naturally lead them to work across clusters of related topics.
For example, while a writer may have fallen in love with investigating the mysteries shrouding Alzheimer’s Disease and produced a lot of great work in that field, that job may have led to an opportunity to write about exciting findings in rare childhood neurologic diseases. Great work on that job may have then led to a job focused on stem cell transplants in children and that eventually led to a job in gene therapy and so on. This illustration gives you a feel for how individuals can pick up a lot of knowledge across a number of areas through freelance medical writing over time.
I remember being surprised whilst working in a healthcare communications agency in New York, that our most experienced medical writer and scientific counsel for pharmaceuticals and rare cancers was a guy with a PhD in nutrition.
The fact is, a freelance senior medical writer who is great at their job is versatile, and can extrapolate their expertise to a related, tangential or new disease or therapeutic area. Any medical writer with integrity will turn down a job they’re not confident they can deliver on.
Medical writing expertise
So, is freelance medical writing, literally just writing? Depending on your personal experience, you may think they exclusively focus on either manuscripts, posters, presentations, or continuing medical education (CME) materials. However, like most healthcare communications professionals, their expertise is actually really diverse and covers a range of services. Some focus on well, writing, whilst others also perform systematic literature reviews with statistical analyses, and others are full blown medical communications experts who can also provide strategic counsel, provide in-depth coverage of scientific sessions at medical congresses, and organise pharmaceutical company advisory boards.
Here’s a list of areas of expertise you may be able to expect out of a freelance medical writer:
- White papers
- Case studies
- Materials for in-person or online CME courses
- Satellite symposia presentations and brochures
- Mechanism of disease (MoD) and mechanism of action (MoA) video scripts
- Preceptorship documents
- Training content for medical science liaisons (MSLs) and affiliates
- Patient information
- Advisory board preparation, content, moderation and reports (many also design, plan and project manage these events too!)
- Key opinion leader (KOL) engagement
- Detail aids
- Objection handlers
- Messaging platforms
- Leave behinds
- Web content
- Training manuals for sales representatives
Strategy and planning:
- Strategic data interpretation
- Scientific platform development
- Publication planning
- Competitive landscape analysis
- Competitive intelligence gathering / reporting from medical congresses
- Fact checking
- Referencing (fluent in EndNote and Microsoft Word Endnote)
- Developing reference packs
- Medical / legal / regulatory (MLR) applications and processes including Veeva Vault to route documents for approval within pharmaceutical companies
Medical writing experience
Most freelance medical writers have experience working with a variety of clients ranging from healthcare communications agencies, pharmaceutical and biotech companies, academic institutions and often directly with physicians themselves.
Many have also published their own research in peer-reviewed journals or even worked for these journals themselves (which can be tremendously valuable if you need help with publication planning or manuscript preparations).
Generally, it’s fairly clear from a freelance medical writer’s CV as to where their expertise and experience lies from past medical writer jobs or prior career in communications agencies. Some writers are also adept at using MLR systems like Veeva Vault that are required by pharmaceutical companies to approve assets that are used for internal and external communications purposes. This is especially helpful because then they can autonomously handle a job end-to-end, including tagging references in the system, clarifying feedback directly with reviewers and reducing budget otherwise needed for a team project manager to handle the logistics of the upload and feedback loop.
Qualities of the best medical writers
Everyone likes a responsive medical writer (or any content writer for that matter!) with a ‘can-do’ attitude, a way with words and a solutions-oriented approach. It’s also critical that s/he is fastidiously detail-orientated (got to get that referencing 100% watertight!), but also flexible if information, approaches, or content need to be amended per MLR feedback or to better support pharmaceutical brand/business objectives or messages.
You’ll be able to glean this from the interview by asking questions such as, “how have you resolved a difference of opinion with a client, colleague, or MLR reviewer on a past medical writing or medical communications project?” That will give you some insight as to whether they’re good listeners, contrarians, yes-men/women, or will critically think about your feedback and thoughtfully implement it whilst flagging any concerns/alternative options.
Availability for freelance medical writing projects
Sure, you want a freelance medical writer who is available to take on your job, but you don’t want them to be too available. People who are amazing at what they do (especially freelancers) are generally booked up. However, by operating as a virtual freelancer agency with a curated network of medical writing and medical communications talent, PR-it is able to provide clients high quality freelancers on-demand.
How much should a medical writer cost?
How long is a piece of string, right?! The cost for a freelance medical writer generally varies depending on their educational background (i.e. PhD, MD or PharmD), number of years in the industry, medical communications agency or publishing track record, how in-demand they currently are, complexity and duration of the job, and how they contract for their time (i.e. flat fee project rates, day rates or hourly rates).
Just keep in mind, like everything in life and business, you get what you pay for. Freelance senior medical writers have highly specialised skills that are in demand and the projects are often time-consuming due to research and referencing requirements.
If you want to have complete peace of mind with your medical writer jobs, then drop us an email. At PR-it, we contract based on flat fees and back all of our work with a quality commitment. We’re not happy until you are (really!).
Our medical writers can also be curated into micro teams with medical illustrators (2D & 3D), animators and graphic designers from PR-it’s collective to deliver medical communications projects end-to-end to support education modules, congresses, marketing initiatives, and so on.
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Post originally published 23 September 2020; updated 28 January 2021.